“Name something Britney Spears has lost,” "Family Feud” host John O’Hurley instructs two eager contestants during an episode of the popular TV game show, prompting them to slam their palms on the buzzer in a furious rush to be first to give an answer.
“Her husband!” shouts the winner.
Indeed, that answer is on the board. The crowd goes wild.
The next contestant twirls her brown locks.
“Her hair!” she exclaims.
That’s on the board as well, in the top slot. Then, O’Hurley walks over to the second contestant’s team to ask for another example of what Britney Spears has lost.
“Her sanity!” is the triumphant reply.
In chilling testimony to the agency she has now been denied, her story is told by other people because the singer herself couldn’t be interviewed.
Someone at “Family Feud” thought it was a good idea to make Spears’ life a joke. And then others either implicitly or enthusiastically approved. They made a woman’s suffering into entertainment.
The incident, though searing, is just one example of copious footage showing the child performer-turned-pop star being used for someone else’s careless or even malicious ends in the compelling New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” airing Friday night on FX and Hulu.
An entire industry profited from Spears’ successes as well as her failures, manufacturing a narrative that suited their purposes and silenced Spears. She was framed, as the fim argues. Framed, like a person trapped in a photograph. Framed, as in punished for something she didn’t do.
Part of the way Spears has been transformed into an object stems from a conservatorship she was placed under in 2008 that continues to give her father control over her finances and other parts of her life — a conservatorship that this documentary carefully scrutinizes. As portrayed in the documentary, Spears’ conservatorship looms as the ultimate example of the system’s oppression, a continuous and overarching mechanism meant to protect Spears from herself but actually used to control her.
In chilling testimony to the agency she has now been denied, her story is told by other people because the singer herself couldn’t be interviewed; a note at the end says rather ominously, “The New York Times attempted to reach Britney Spears directly to request her participation in this project. It is unclear if she received the requests.”
While “Framing Britney Spears” doesn’t break new ground, perhaps because the filmmakers couldn’t speak to the subject herself, the documentary’s effectiveness comes from its skillful weaving together of past footage with critical commentary. By juxtaposing images of Spears in the prime of her career with discussions about conservatorship, the documentary adds to the critical conversation we are having about women, agency and trauma.
We first meet young Britney through the eyes of her former assistant, Felicia Culotta. This is a shrewd way to frame the documentary itself and emphasize that Spears is not a child, she’s a 39-year-old woman who doesn’t need supervision anymore and can control the trajectory of her life.
Even before Spears starts to go off track, we see glimpses of the ways Hollywood damaged an effervescent girl. We watch a clip of Spears performing on Ed McMahon’s “Star Search” in 1992, adorable with a large bow in her hair. Afterward, McMahon asks the 11-year-old if she has a boyfriend — a creepy way to engage with a young guest.
As Spears rises to fame, we hear co-workers and associates testify to her work ethic and creative vision, emphasizing that she always called the shots. They paint a picture of Spears as focused and in control. Behind-the-scenes footage of her rehearsals remind us that she really was a spectacular dancing and singing talent and had boundless energy during this point in her career.
We also hear from the paparazzi, who were themselves at the height of their powers during Spears’ early career, hounding her to distraction — specifically, Daniel Ramos. Infamously known as the man whose car Spears attacked with her umbrella, Ramos explains that pictures of Britney sold for exorbitant prices and it was easy to convince oneself that Spears and the paparazzi were mutually benefiting from each other.
“She never gave a clue or information to us that ‘I don’t appreciate you guys, leave me the F alone,’” Ramos says. To that the interviewer responds, “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone’?” It’s a satisfying moment.
We see Spears as presented by the tabloid industry, especially after her 2002 break-up with Justin Timberlake. Spears is scolded on the split by ABC’s Diane Sawyer in a 2003 prime-time interview about unproven rumors that she’d cheated on him. “You broke his heart, you did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?” Sawyer asks, a pursed look on her face. Sawyer also informs Spears that Kendel Ehrlich, wife of the governor of Maryland, said if she “had the opportunity to shoot Britney Spears” she would.
Spears is punished in another TV interview by the later disgraced Matt Lauer of NBC for being an unfit mother because she drove with her child in her lap. Caught in the face of faux sanctimonious misogyny, a harried mother who made a bad decision, Spears cries and apologizes.
Spears continued to be harassed by the media, eventually requiring hospitalization for mental health issues in 2008 while in the midst of a custody battle with ex-husband Kevin Federline. In the wake of Spears’ hospitalization, her father, Jamie, petitioned the courts for an emergency “temporary” conservatorship.
Generally, conservatorships are granted to people who are incapable of making decisions, such as people with dementia or other cognitive or mental disabilities. They can also be granted to those who are susceptible to undue influence and may not act in their best interest. Jamie Spears, who is portrayed as someone more interested in his daughter’s fortune than her sense of self, did not participate in the documentary.
While Spears may have initially needed court-ordered assistance in 2008, that’s most likely no longer the case — and she wants her father removed from the conservatorship. The #FreeBritney movement, which aims to raise awareness about Spears’ conservatorship and ultimately liberate her, believes that Spears has demonstrated that she is ready to control her life and assets. They rally at Spears’ conservatorship hearings and are passionate about helping a person who they say has given them so much.
Legal documents echo their concerns. In a recent filing, Spears’ court-appointed lawyer Sam Ingham stated that she was a “high-functioning conservatee” — which raised red flags for Spears’ former lawyer Adam Streisand: “She’s functioning enough to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want my father to be my conservator, I’m not going to perform if he’s the conservator.’ Maybe she doesn’t need the conservatorship.”
Behind-the-scenes footage of her rehearsals remind us that she really was a spectacular dancing and singing talent.
“Framing Britney Spears” makes it clear that Spears was a promising young woman transformed into a person absent from her own life. Due to constant harassment from paparazzi, toxic influences and untreated mental health issues, Spears becomes unwound.
But is she still in need of legal intervention so many years later? In the tradition of so many “madwomen in the attic” stories before her, “Framing Britney Spears” asks what happens when the door is opened to reveal not a frothing hag but hints of a quirky, completely competent human who benefits from meaningful work, time with her children and an Instagram account.